The age of Independent Wearable Devices?


There has been much hype in the media surrounding the upcoming release of the new Apple Watch Series 3 (expected late this year, or early 2018), but why are people so excited?

For some time in training and investigations at Blue Lights Digital, we have been discussing the impending release of independent wearable devices and their potential impact to investigators. So, when the news hit about the new Apple Watch, we were quick to get to the bottom of the rumours…

Why is this relevant?

Almost a year ago, back in September 2016, we dedicated an entire section of our newsletter to wearable devices. In this feature, we discussed the challenges of wearable devices and their potential impact on historically reliable digital investigation techniques.

Our research at the time demonstrated that wearable devices can differ significantly in terms of the volume and value of data that they could provide to an investigator. To keep things simple, we have summarised these differences into three categories:

  • Mirrored
    • Solely displaying the data and capability of the ‘master’ device, these devices are likely to only ever contain whatever data is available within the master device. However, they could still be valuable in corroboration or in furthering attribution of evidence.
  • Enhanced
    • These devices provide additional functionality and data, of which the master device would not be able to capture without the wearable. This additional information may not be available on the master device directly, meaning the value of the data could be significant to the investigation.
  • Independent
    • Operating and connecting directly to an LTE or Wi-Fi network without the need for a master device, these devices mean that any data captured must be done so directly through the storage of the wearable device.

Current Apple Watch

Within these categories, the current Apple Watches are firmly categorised as enhanced devices.
When they are on the go, they require a master device to perform the majority of their functionalities, such as streaming music, using maps, and sending messages.
They mainly rely upon the connected iPhone device to provide functionality and connectivity to a network, therefore their capability is limited without the iPhone within bluetooth range.
The new announcement changes all of this…


A Cellular Apple Watch?

With the addition of newly developed LTE chips (Long Term Evolution – a 4G wireless broadband technology), it has been rumoured that the need to have an iPhone nearby will no longer be necessary.

This has been the main leaked rumour, and its premise is intriguing as it would mean that the Apple Watch would now be properly independent of its phone without users relying on their phone for connectivity to the mobile network.!

This means that the device would be able to take calls, send messages, use VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and instant messaging, as well as a huge array of apps without the need for a mobile device anywhere in range…

… or would it??


In some ways, yes…

As the watch would be operating as its own device with LTE capability, an independent cellular plan would need to be involved.

This means that a user would pay an additional contract/PAYG plan for their wearable device, on top of the one they have for their mobile phone every month. This isn’t revolutionary either, and UK CSP’s have offered this for sometime across a range of devices such as O2 with the Samsung Gear S2.


In other ways no…

Firstly, industry experts are saying that it is unlikely Apple will immediately integrate traditional telecom capability (phone calls and text messages) into the Apple Watch 3. Instead, it is likely to mirror the approach that they have taken to date with their iPod and iPad devices where installation of LTE technology does not turn the device into a phone, but allows the use of all of the other functions (that use mobile data) without the need for a Wi-Fi connection.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman explains more…

Why will this capability not be available? Well, a huge obstacle of LTE technology is the issue of power. Unfortunately, with normal useage of the wearable device (akin to a mobile phone’s usage) the battery could run down in just a few hours!

Digital wearables also have to be easy to wear and portable. So, it wouldn’t be the best design to have to keep reconnecting to a mains in between calls!

Additionally, any battery will have to fit in with the watch… literally. With Apple’s slick and clean iconic design, there is little room for a larger battery at the moment!


Revolutionary or Evolutionary?

It should be pointed out that although this is a breakthrough for Apple, it is NOT a technological breakthrough. Android will be quick to point out other wearable devices on the market have offered cellular connectivity for some time.

These other products (usually Android) out there can give us an insight into where the Apple Watch Series 3 may go. Currently, the Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch boasts up to a three day battery life, and has LTE incorporated.

Additionally, there are a huge range of wearable devices with LTE functionality that allow phone calls on the market. These can be purchased online for as little as £20, so it is not impossible to see where the future is going.

Perhaps the Apple Watch Series 3 will not be revolutionary in its features or design, but it certainly will be taking us another step towards the future of wearables… slowly.

Apple products are called evolutionary rather than revolutionary for a reason.


Cellular Watches as the Future?

Even if the LTE technology is sound and has no flaws, there is still one glaring issue that may be overlooked when people discuss smart watches fully replacing mobile devices: screen size.

Whilst smart watches have their benefits, people today are used to using their device to watch a film on the Tube, or read a book at the doctors, or play hours of games. This usages means most users are happy with the device as a peripheral accessory, but not as their main device.


Is there an Investigative Impact?

Quite frankly… not yet. Not until the functionality of the device is confirmed by Apple.

With the current dependency on pairing to a mobile device for use of the LTE network, communications data will continue to be generated by that mobile device without any impact caused by the use of a wearable device. Traditional communications will contain the same investigative opportunities it always has as call data originating without a wearable in the knowledge that any linked device will still be within bluetooth radius.

We are already aware from our own forensic testing that there are many opportunities within investigations to identify, acquire and attribute data and connectivity from and to wearable devices. Often, the wearable itself is treated as secondary to the recovery and analysis of data from the synched application on a mobile device.

If indeed the new watch is released without the enhanced LTE capability to make calls, then it is suggested that any wearable device that is located as part of an investigation is treated as any other data enabled device would be (such as an iPod or iPad with a SIM card). This means treating it independently from a mobile device, as it may not be paired with a smartphone and could hold valuable data.

Finally, if industry experts are wrong (it would not be a first) and Apple do indeed release a watch with enhanced LTE capability that a user to make phone calls, then this may present new challenges to investigators who would need to become further proficient at digital profiling of a subject to identify and pursue the appropriate lines of enquiry.

An awful lot would depend on the capability (or otherwise) to hand off between:

  1. the paired mobile device and the watch when they stray in and out of range of each other
  2. the cellular and WiFi network without an impact on communication.

If Apple (and the CSPs) can achieve these two elements then this would be truly groundbreaking technology and present some interesting investigative challenges and opportunities…

Our team is undertaking A LOT of research into the continued development of wearable devices and their potential impact on digital investigation and intelligence. Watch this space!